Finding Joy : an MMT100 Experience
“Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
A couple of weeks before MMT100 this year, Amy and I were in NOLA at a Duran Duran / Chic Concert. We had great, expensive floor seats because we really were excited to get into the whole experience. Sitting next to us were two girls who were stone-faced bored and on their phones through Chic. Not sure how you could do that because Chic was amazing, but maybe they were just there for Duran Duran; nope, stone-faced, bored and on their phones for the entire show. Another guy in front of us spent the whole show standing facing the opposite way from the stage with his arms crossed?????
If you’re not enjoying the experience, leave
Friday the 13th of May, Amy and I were attending the pre-race briefing of the Massanutten Mountain 100 foot race. Among all the usual banter about cut offs, course markings, trail conditions, aid stations, etc. Kevin Sayers the RD said something that stuck out. I will paraphrase:
There is no way you will finish the Massanutten Mountain 100 if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, so enjoy what you’re doing. If you find you’re not enjoying what you’re doing figure out what you can change about you in order to enjoy it. If you can’t do that, do yourself and the volunteers a favor and drop… there’s good food at the finish line.
14 years ago I attempted this silly footrace, young and cocky with a head full of ego I charged into the course and dropped at 83.2 miles because of injury. In the past few years, I got back on the horse to get my qualifications to attempt it again, knowing I had a bone to pick with the course, and I eventually lined up again last year. I dropped at 69 miles because I was out of shape. In both cases I went with something to prove, and while I did enjoy bits of it, my attitude got in the way.
This year was different…
(spoiler alert, I finished… shortest race report ever unless you decide to read on)
In preparation this year I edited a spreadsheet I made last year so I could just look at distance, elevation, and cutoff to each aid station. I packed changes of clothes and nutrition with very limited instructions to my amazing crew (Amy). I packed a drop bag for Veach Gap. So upon trying to drop off my drop bag, I was informed that Veach Gap wouldn’t have drop bags this year. With that news I came up with a possible game plan to pick up a bladder from Amy at the aid station before but it would be a game time decision. (Veach Gap is 9 miles from the next aid station which is 50 miles total and a ton of climb so hydration is critical). Then I just shrugged off the inconvenience of my very loose original game plan being changed.
Still, there were other negatives floating in my head. I had just received an email from someone I perform with letting me know that my intonation on my last gig was unacceptable. My knee-jerk reaction was, “I guess I need to give up music.” Music and running are my “go to” places, and my DNF’s last year combined with this news had my safe places shaken to their core.
3:00 AM comes early… yet I still woke up before the alarm. I put on my gear including shoes I knew would hurt and laughed about already breaking a sweat while taping my feet.
The proverbial gun went off at 4:00 and we headed up 600 ft in 4 miles on paved then dirt road. I remember who I got caught behind in the conga line the year before so I made a point to be ahead of her when we hit the single track this year. I edged her out right before the single track and then realized the person I just edged out wasn’t who I thought it was, she was waaaaaaay behind me. So out of breath and amused at my stupidity I started the climb up Short Mountain.
Midway up this 1200’ climb I stopped, stepped off the trail, and caught my breath. I let at least 20 people by me, some asking if I was OK. I just knew a reset button was needed to be pushed as I was only at mile 7, not even double digits, and my cardio was already out of whack, not fun. So I let my heart-rate drop, found a space between conga lines, and marched to the top. I remembered a glorious sunrise here last year as I crested, but it was still dark this year when I reached the top. Two miles down the ridge the sun came up, more beautiful than I remember from the year before and much further along the trail which let me know I was far ahead of last year’s start.
By in large, I kept to myself the entire race, only really talking to people at aid stations or the “on your left” or “please go by” statements passing my lips. Life has been hard and busy and full of interactions and issues with other people, I was really enjoying “me time” and I felt really settled mentally and emotionally as I rolled into Elizabeth Furnace (33.3 mi). It was during this section that I reflected on my family, and my kids. I was able to see clearly what a great place all of them are in and realize how much they have grown, especially emotionally. My oldest is finding her way in career and love, my next oldest applied for a great scholarship (she didn’t get it) and is really finding out what she is passionate about. My next oldest has computers and electronic dance music, and great friends and activities, and the youngest is in the best place of knowing their true self. I don’t like the word, but for lack of a better one I will used ‘blessed’. Maybe I’m just lucky, or maybe I had a hand in how they are turning out, it doesn’t matter, I am really happy with where they are at. I also started thinking about music, and what I needed to do to rectify my situation. I don’t need to quit, I just need to focus on some fundamentals again. This type of rhythmic meditation that puts things in perspective is one of the main reasons I run long and alone in the woods.
I should also mention that as the mind wanders during these runs, it becomes less and less about myself. Looking at the next ridge over I thought of my friend Jeff Young who had just started his through hike of the AT. I thought of my friend Laura Howard who is absolutely amazing at pointing out that I need to focus on positive thoughts and discard the lingering DNFs and musical mistakes I hang onto. I thought of Mike Valone who was out running a hard 52 K that day; a guy who moves at the back of the pack and tends to struggle late in races, but who’s joy for these events and the people in and around them is unmatched by anyone. It takes being alone for me to realize how well surrounded I am by good great people. The greatest of which was crewing me and who I would get to see at many aid stations.
Skipping ahead, I didn’t take the bladder before Veach gap, I ate lots of potatoes including lots of perogies Amy sent me on my way with, and I ate lots of Ramen (and even some fruit) I avoided sugars. I cruised into Habron Gap (54 mi) something like 2 hours ahead of my time last year. Got out much quicker and trudged up the next 1300’ climb to Camp Roosevelt.
Camp Roosevelt (63 mi) was where I was basically done the previous year. This year I was in and out without seeing Amy, who was parked conveniently where I finally saw the van on my way out and tapped on the window. I had a much needed clothing change for the upcoming night time run. With 5.8 miles until Gap Creek this section is up 1200’ down 1300’ in rocks and mud and is what I considered the worst section of the entire course. Last year it took me over 4 hours to complete and I missed the cutoff. This year, I danced over rocks utilizing my trekking poles, I savored the moment I felt a blister burst in my heel allowing the warm puss to slosh in my sock, and I was just amused at the stupidity of the section, of what I was doing and how I was feeling. Two hours later I was at Gap Creek drinking broth and getting ready to climb Kearns Mountain and attack its 3 mile rocky ridge.
Then I missed the turn…
1.5 miles of extra rolling fire road happened before I realized it (even though I ran this section back in March), so 1.5 miles back to the turn I went. I good 3 miles/45 minutes before I hit the big climb known as Jaw Bone. I wasn’t put off too much, I was just worried about Amy because she saw how well I was doing and this next aid station I would be coming in much later than expected. Regardless I just put one foot in front of the other because I knew I had put the worst section behind me already and got to the 2 mile downhill road section that let me run into the Visitor Center (78.1 mi).
Sunrise number two on Birdknob, 1000’ up from where I left the Visitor Center is a glorious thing. But it was getting colder, not warmer, so battling hypothermia I rolled into the next aid station that was featuring Knob Creek and Hennessy as the beverages of choice… so I ate more broth and trudged to the Picnic Area where I knew Amy was waiting. Two aid stations left!
The picnic area was running low on supplies, I grabbed broth and then used the men’s room which was ridiculous itself as there were no locks and one roll of TP between the men’s and women’s room. This was the first time I sat since the start and would be the last until the finish. I was noticing that standing was harder than moving and I didn’t want to sit because I knew that it would be too easy to not get back up. Anyhow, this was a critical juncture, I knew how close I was (16 miles) but I knew it wasn’t a given. I wanted to be back at Gap Creek with 3 hours to spare for the last 6.9 miles. I wanted it, I was crying because I wanted it, I was hurting, I was sure I could get it, I wasn’t sure I could get it… I just had to keep moving. I still had Big Run to get over and one more time up Jaw Bone, but comforted myself that the hardest part was over after Camp Roosevelt…
Big Run is a measly 1300’ climb. I remember doing it in March no problem…
Here’s the deal, in March, it was the first climb at mile two of a 26 mile run, now it was the tenth significant (900’+ ) climb and it was at mile 92. In March it had been bone dry with forest fire warnings. This time when I rounded the bend to the climb I was confronted with a literal 1300’ ascent up a rocky stream with yellow flagging tape marking the way.
I stared some more
A volunteer came by leaping from rock to rock and said, “yeah the water is running a little higher than it was when the leaders came through.” and then bounded away…
I stared some more…
I probably stared for 5 – 10 minutes
I was pissed, I was angry; this was the first real WTF moment I had during the entire event. I was outraged, I was demoralized.
Then I heard it:
“Enjoy what you’re doing. If you find you’re not enjoying what you’re doing figure out what you can change about you in order to enjoy it. If you can’t do that, do yourself and the volunteers a favor and drop… there’s good food at the finish line.”
This stream/waterfall suddenly looked absurd, it then looked silly, and then it just looked stupid, and if there is anything I excel at, it’s stupid. I laughed at myself, I knew I had signed up for this, it was my choice, if I wasn’t going to enjoy it, then why did I bother? 40 minutes later I was at the top.
This is where I won, this was my internal finish line, this was why I came.
I get to choose, not necessarily what is in front of me, but how I approach it. This is the a-ha moment, that some people get naturally but it takes 93 miles of a ridiculously hard ultra for me to get it. I can enjoy where I’m at, what I’m doing regardless of the circumstance, and that enjoyment makes everything easier (more enjoyable… go figure).
In the past week and half since this moment, I have trying to figure out how to apply this lesson to the rest of my life. Yes, it is much easier to choose joy, when you also chose the obstacle in front of you, like 103.7 miles and a 1300’ river climb at mile 92. But how do you choose joy when surrounded by things you didn’t choose; politics, religion, economic situations, other people… This is hard. What I’m finding out is that the situation and the people aren’t what I need to enjoy and be happy with, it’s me. I need to enjoy my positions when it comes to politics, the environment, the economy, and my job. I need to be secure that I’m good with where I’m at, inside and out. I don’t need to let other people and obstacles dictate my emotions or my joy, and it probably ticks them off if I’m joyful in the face of their conflict with me (that’s their problem, not mine, but I do love good Schadenfreude).
So there it is. I made it to Gap Creek with 2:50 to go 6.9 miles. Got up and down Jaw Bone, into camp and crossed the finish line at 35:37 that’s 23 minutes to spare.
BTW Girls at the Duran Duran show, you might better enjoy a Morrisey concert
Some stupid numbers I enjoy:
14 = my lucky number (my birthday) – How many years from my first attempt to my finish
123 = My bib number – 1 wasn’t enough, 2 wasn’t enough, but the 3rd time was the charm
10ish =the number of hours longer it took me to finish MMT 100 as opposed to Haliburton 100
2 – The number of buckles I have earned
“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”
~Rainer Maria Rilke
“We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are.”